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Q&A: Actor Peter Stormare on Ramases and the Psych Rock Resurgence

By Christian Koons on April 21, 2014

 

Q&A: Actor Peter Stormare on Ramases and the Psych Rock Resurgence

The psychedelic rock resurgence isn't exactly news at this point. The recent popularity of bands like Tame Impala, Temples, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Foxygen—not to mention the increased exposure of the West Coast school of psych-outfits, including Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and White Fence, amongst others—is evidence enough that the indie-rock sphere is finding inspiration and new forms of expression by harkening back to the pre-digital days of psych-rock. Call it a reaction to a post-Internet society, where you'll likely see glowing Apple logos outnumber guitars on any given stage, but whatever the cause, one thing is clear: rock is returning to its gnarled roots, and dads all over the world are coming home to find their record collections pilfered and their living rooms hazy with the smoke of incense. 

 

Peter Stormare, a Swedish actor best known for his roles in Fargo and The Big Lebowski, has spent the last decade working between movies to reissue the material of Ramases, a psychedelic space-rock project from the 1970s led by Barrington Frost, a British central heating salesman who believed himself to be the reincarnation of the Egyptian Pharaoh from whom he and the band take their name. After releasing two albums with his wife, Selket, that received little commercial or critical attention, Ramases strayed into obscurity and eventually died by his own hand in 1978. The band's eventual cult following, it would seem, was inevitable. 

 

Stormare, whose record label Stormvox will reissue the Ramses catalog on April 22, has been a fan of Ramases since childhood. FILTER spoke with Stormare about the process behind the reissue, his contact with Selket, the importance of psychedelic music to his spiritual life, and how The Beatles pointed him to God.

 

Tell me about how this project started. How'd you decide to reissue the Ramases discography? 

 

Peter Stormare: Ten years ago I was in Hawaii shooting a movie, and I hadn't listened to [Ramases] for a while. But all of a sudden, in Hawaii of all places, I started dreaming about him. I knew he was gone and had committed suicide, but I had this feeling of him being in the room. Somebody was taking to me, you know, and finally I realized [who it was]. It was then I started to think about their songs. 

 

I was not haunted—it was a pleasurable thing. I was on the computer on something called Genie—it doesn't exist anymore—where you could sort of ask questions and people went online for you. I had it for free and I asked about a couple of bands, including Ramases. It came up with a lot of theories; some said he wasn't dead, blah blah blah. I knew that Selket was still alive, so I posted a couple of ads in a paper in Felixstowe, where she comes from: "If anyone knows anything about Selket and her whereabouts, please contact me."

 

It was three or four months afterwards that her brother contacted me. He tried to convince her to talk about it, and finally I flew her over here to LA. She was here for a couple of days and I set up the studio, in case she wanted to do some songs. She had some lyrics, but it was too much for her. Nothing came out of it. Then maybe a year later she came to her senses and contacted me again through her brother. We started to talk about it over the phone and Hotmail. 

 

 

You started to talk about the reissue?

 

Yeah. That was my goal. I got in contact with Harvey Lisberg, who was Ramases's manager. He lives down in Palm Springs. He started with The Yardbirds and Herman's Hermits and 10cc, so he was a big shot. He told me how he met [Ramases]: They showed up at his hotel room in London with a guitar, looking like two alien hippies. They played the music for him and he said he fell in love with it. He took them up to Manchester and introduced them to Graham Gouldman, Eric Stewart and Lol Creme [of 10cc]. They recorded everything up there in the Strawberry Studios. 

 

So that's how it started. We got the rights for the material—Harvey helped me—through EMI, who had released the first album without the manager's or artist's agreement. I don't think they ever paid Selket a penny in royalties. She needs money, you know; she's not rich. The first album—they really don't know where [the contract] is. So I just said, "We'll release it and I'll send the money to Sel. She deserves it." They were so ripped off. 

 

Finally, through Harvey's connections, the guys at EMI found the original tapes and agreed to send us everything. So we then transferred everything to digital and into ProTools. And then to try to decipher everything—it's not the easiest job. But if you're stubborn and you want to do something, it might take ten years, it might take a lifetime, but you have to complete things.

 

And since getting the tapes you've been working on remastering and remixing.

 

Yeah. My producer Michael Vail Blum is an expert at recreating everything. He worked his ass off to get the best results. But it's been very hard to cut and paste all the stuff together. Especially the first album, because sometimes you have bass, guitar and a voice on the same track, and it's so hard to separate. We've been trying to keep it close to the original. It's been a headache. 

 

But there's a lot of gems. On some songs they did three or four takes, and the tape machine was going, so we got a lot of material. We have that as an outtakes thing, which is really cool for us and hardcore fans. We tried to get Ramases' voice up, so it's in the foreground much more than it was before. We've done an alternative mix on the second album [Glass Top Coffin], [because] according to Selket it was [originally] overproduced. More people moved in and thought it would be a big seller, but it wasn't. 

 

Some people just take a vinyl, get rid of all the scratches, and call it remastered. You can't just do like Led Zeppelin where every third year there's a new remaster. You don't know what they changed! For some bands it's a money-making machine, but when it comes to this, I doubt I will ever recoup the money I spent. But some people have cars as a hobby or sailboats or they go fishing somewhere in the Pacific. Every hobby is costly to some extent. This gives me, at least, a sense of a well-being. When I work with music, whether it's my own or other people's, I can sit there and see all the pieces coming together. I'm very, very happy with this one. 

 

Are you still in contact with Selket? Has she heard the remastered recordings?

 

Yeah! She's very happy. It's really great. She remarried, and her new husband was sort of a jealous guy. [She and Ramases] did a whole new album called The Sky Lark that they recorded on cassettes. One day when she came home [her husband] had thrown away everything. Everything she had in the attic that belonged to Ramases, and a previous life—it all vanished, which was heartbreaking to her. They're divorced now.

 

 

What first appealed to you about Ramases and his music?

 

I grew up in a tiny village, partially as a believer. I was born with a faith. But, I mean—the world for me was Jimi Hendrix, too, and The Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds, all those bands. A thing that really helped me a lot was George Harrison and the influence of Indian music in the Beatles. I love The Byrds too. They had a hit single in '69 or '70 called "Jesus is Just Alright," and I loved it because I could sing that song in school and people wouldn't mock me. Then George Harrison came out with "My Sweet Lord" and his Hare Krishna chanting, and I could go around chanting Hare Krishna and everybody thought it was cool because the big guys like The Beatles did it. 

 

And then came Ramases with his Space Hymns, which is sort of about how we pollute and destroy this Earth, and how we must say yes to the omnipotent God and the light that surrounds this earth and surrounds all of us. It sort of became, for me, a trump card, because they talk about God and spirits and belief. It confirmed me and legitimized me. In the beginning I had to sort of hide and go into a Baptist meeting to sing Hallelujah, and then sneak out the back door in my black jeans and my jacket and say "Fuck the Baptists, they're crazy. Jimi is God." 

 

So psychedelic music gave you a chance to bring your faith into your public life. 

 

Yeah, I could be more myself. All my childhood it had been one Peter going to school and one Peter hiding in a dark closet listening to that kind of music that said yes to God, yes to Jesus and yes to religion. 

 

Is spirituality in music still important to you?

 

Yes, absolutely. Spirituality is in my life. When John Lennon said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, the fanatics started burning [Beatles records], but I said, "But they make such beautiful music!" Lennon later said, "I never said I don't believe in God. I never said I don't believe in Jesus. The kids are turning away from God and turning to us as if we have all the answers. We don't have all the answers. You've gotta go elsewhere." But they were not allowed to talk so much about that, being rock stars. It would ruin their image. 

 

So you saw Beatles' music as pointing to God, in a way. 

 

Yeah. When I first heard my brother play "Tomorrow Never Knows" it was like a bullet train went through my head. When I later heard chanting monks from Tibet, I was like, "Wow, I want to go there and hear that." So that's how it started, and my whole life has been saying yes to spirituality. It's more fun to believe than not believe. I like to laugh, I like to smile. I'm very curious. Every day there is something special happening. If you lose your curiosity, you've lost your appetite for life. A lot of people have closed their doors and all the windows—they're locked in and they've lost the keys. I've always tried to keep all my windows open, keep the hinges oiled. It's part of being alive.

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